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Shadowy group behind ‘racist’ ad against the Voice

The ad caused a stir on both sides of politics when it was published on Thursday.

The ad caused a stir on both sides of politics when it was published on Thursday. Photo: Twitter

An advertising campaign targeting a business leader, his MP daughter and an Indigenous campaigner for supporting the Voice to Parliament referendum has been roundly condemned as racist.

The full-page, full-colour ad opposing the Voice was placed by the conservative campaign group Advance Australia in The Australian Financial Review on Thursday.

The advertisement depicts Wesfarmers chairman and Yes23 director Michael Chaney dangling a sum of money over the head of Indigenous Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo.

MPs from across the political aisle criticised the ad, including former NSW treasurer Liberal Matt Kean, who said it used an old racist trope in its depiction of Mr Mayo.

Independent MP Kate Chaney, Mr Chaney’s daughter, who is depicted as sitting on his knee in the advertisement, joined those calls.

“It’s disappointing to see the No campaign stooping to personal and racist attacks,” Ms Chaney said in a statement.

“Ultimately, I think people will vote in the referendum based on what is fair and useful, not based on fear and hate.”

The controversy comes as Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has picked a fight with corporate Australia over its overwhelming support for the referendum, to be held in the final months of this year.

James Chessell, the managing director of Nine Entertainment’s newspaper publication division, did not respond to questions on Thursday asking if he personally stood by the advertisement’s content.

Chessell is a former adviser to Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Later, however, the Nine Network apologised for running the ad.

“The political advertisement about the Voice referendum placed into today’s Financial Review should not have run, and we apologise for that. We want to encourage a mature debate from both sides and avoid personal and/or inappropriate attacks,” a company spokesperson said.

Mysterious group

The group behind the advertisement is shrouded in mystery.

Little is known about Advance Australia, the far-right activist group and fundraising body that placed the advertisement and attempts to contact its director, Matthew Sheahan, have been unsuccessful.

Advance Australia styles itself as the conservative analogue to GetUp!.

During the most recent federal election, it funded advertisements branding ACT independent Senator David Pocock as an environmentalist politically aligned to the Greens.

A similar attack targeting Independent MP Zali Steggall and billboards warning that the Chinese Communist Party had effected a takeover of Australian politics also appeared bearing the group’s authorisation last May.

The group is registered along with several other businesses to a crowded office building in central Canberra.

A clue?

Its most recent donations declarations suggest a clutch of non-descript corporate entities funds it.

The group was founded by Gerard Benedet, a former adviser to the National Party who then moved to work for one of Australia’s most powerful lobbies, the Pharmacy Guild which represents wealthy owners of chemists.

But the group’s connections to former Liberal Party members from the conservative Christian faction aligned to former junior minister Zed Seselja (who lost his seat to Senator Pocock at the 2022 election) are well documented.

Mr Seselja and other senior members of the Canberra Liberals have categorically denied any involvement with Advance Australia.

But two of his former advisers, including Sky News personality Liz Storer, have held senior positions in Advance Australia.

A former Liberal who served alongside Mr Seselja in the territory’s Legislative Assembly, Vicki Dunne, joined its board of directors in 2021.

When not campaigning expressly on federal politics the group staunchly supports the mining industry and particularly Gina Rinehart. 

Advance Australia was the name of a speech given by former prime minister Harold Holt.

In that landmark address, Mr Holt extolled the virtues of the mining industry and noted approvingly of the foreign capital behind it.

Ms Chaney, the only teal Independent from Western Australia, has recently backed moves to clean up political donations.

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